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I was a psychology major in college, for the wrong reason. Earlier, when I was in junior high school, my parents took me to the University of Washington Adolescent Clinic. It was their opinion that I was a screwed-up kid, and needed help. In my opinion, I was just fine, and someone else in the family was the problem. But since I was the kid, parents ruled. The intake procedure for the clinic was a big meeting around a conference table, with me, my mother, and four clinicians, including a psychiatrist. They asked me and my mom questions, and we answered. I enjoyed the meeting and answered everyone’s questions honestly. After the meeting, I met with the psychiatrist, a very nice lady. What she told me was that I was correct. I was fine. Mom was the problem. That took a huge weight off me, and I decided then and there that I wanted to be a psychologist when I grew up. Uh, wrong.
So I majored in psychology at college. I really, really wanted to be a counselor, so I could help kids like I was helped. In my senior year of college, I was required to take a course called “Research Participation”, or “rat-running” in the local psych slang. I had to design an experiment involving running rats through a maze; compile the data; and write a paper with the results. I had no real interest in research, but I did it anyway. I came up with the bright idea of exposing one group of rats to loud noise, and the other group of rats to no noise; run them all through the maze afterward, and see if the two groups’ performance was different. My lab partner was my boyfriend, who was afraid of rats! So I handled the rats, and he compiled the data. We found some really screechy music, and I took the record to the AV lab and made a continuous loop of tape with this really awful music, to play for the study group of rats (the others were the control group). Then, every night for a week, I would go to the lab and for an hour I played the noise for the study rats, then spend some time with the control rats, so they all saw me for the same length of time.
At the end of the study week, we took all the rats and ran them through the maze, making notes on their behavior in the maze, like how long it took each rat to get to the food in the center, and what they did while in the maze. And the results were amazing (ooh! pun!). The study rats who were exposed to the noise were jumpy, excitable, and none of them actually made it to the food in the center of the maze. The control rats got to the food after some time in the maze and had no problems.
I wrote the paper on our experiment, my boyfriend did the statistical analysis, and we presented the paper to our instructor. Afterward, we met with the instructor to go over our results, and he said he was very impressed with our work. In fact, he offered to spend some time with us and perhaps prepare the paper for submission for publication in a psychology research journal. Well, I said no, I wasn’t interested in research, I really wanted to be a counselor.
I applied to various graduate schools and was accepted to the Counseling Psychology program at the University of Minnesota. I went to Minneapolis by myself, found a place to live, and started school. I enjoyed my courses, and did well, up until the time when I had to do the actual in-person counseling. I had a student to counsel, and I was videotaped in the background. After the session, I met with the instructor and she told me that I wasn’t all that great, and perhaps I should choose another field of study. But I said I wanted to keep going, and she shrugged and said OK, if you want to.
So I finished that graduate program, got my MA in Counseling Psychology, and … no job. I looked for work for months, took temp jobs to bring in some cash to live on, and no luck. So we went back to Seattle. I never did find a counseling job, and after working a volunteer job on a local crisis line, came to the conclusion that my advisor had been correct, I would not have made a good psychologist at all. I should have listened.
And years later, while reading a newspaper, I discovered that, back in 1970, I had actually done the seminal research on the effect of noise on behavior! If I had listened to my faculty advisor and instructor, and prepared that paper for publication, I might have been famous and had a career in psychology research. Definitive research on noise and behavior didn’t get published until sometime in the 1990s — I was 20 years ahead when I was a senior in college.
That bad decision has rankled for years. It turns out that I really do like doing research, on most any subject. I like the hunt for information, finding sources, and writing papers. Even in grad school, when I got to work with the authors of the Strong-Campbell Interest Inventory test, I liked working with the researchers, and my boyfriend and I were in the “control” group for the new version. Too bad I didn’t listen to both of my faculty advisors. If I could go back and change that one decision, my whole life might have been different.Published in